Free Will: the Landscape of the Debate

 Mike Holliday (February 2013)

At the start of 2013, I was party to a discussion concerning free will with Tom Clark and others on the ‘Naturalism’ forum on Facebook. Although this was an instructive and good-natured exchange of views, I was left feeling that we were still talking at cross-purposes. What follows below was a subsequent attempt to clarify the issues in my own mind and understand why the meeting of minds on this topic seemed to be so difficult - even with people whose sympathies appeared, on the face of it, close to my own.


At its simplest, the problem of free will can be stated like this: if determinism is true – because of the causal closure of the physical world, for example – then how can we possibly have free will? And if we have no free will, doesn’t this imply that we have no moral responsibility for our actions? In which case, praise, blame, punishment, and reward can never be deserved and are therefore unjustifiable.

There are a number of ways in which this “problem” concerning free will can be approached, some of which are easily confused with one another - so I thought I would try and lay out a landscape of the various positions that are taken. I see the terrain as covering a spectrum which I’ll refer to as extending from right to left, although that doesn’t necessarily translate into positions on the political spectrum. Be warned that I am writing with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and rather provocatively – but not, I believe, unfairly.

Starting over on the right, we have those who deny that there is any problem in the first place because they believe that as human beings we have contra-causal free will (CCFW). We can sub-divide this group into “True Believers” and “Naive Believers”. True Believers are explicit in their acceptance of CCFW, as it forms an important element of their religious beliefs.1 Naive Believers tend to be less religious, and their acceptance of CCFW is implicit rather than explicit, deriving from personal upbringing and the culture of the society in which they live. They can sometimes suffer from a generalised sense of guilt, because they may come to feel that they are completely responsible for everything that they do, how their personality has turned out, and so on. True Believers, on the other hand, rarely feel guilt because they are confident that they are on the One True Path to Heaven.

Moving towards the left, we find a spectrum of positions broadly called “compatibilist”. First, we have the “False Compatibilists”. I’m not quite sure that there are any False Compatibilists, but it certainly represents a possible position. False Compatibilists accept determinism and hold that we have free will – and that’s it. Or alternatively, they accept that we don’t have free will but maintain we do have moral responsibility – and that’s it. So their compatibilism is “false”, in that they make no effort at all to explain just how free will or moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. They are even more naive than the Naive Believers.

Next we have the “Brute Compatibilists”. They are concerned to rescue moral responsibility, and with it praise, blame, punishment and reward. They do so by invoking some principal of “fairness” or “just desert”, which then justifies punishment and reward, and therefore legitimises holding people morally responsible for their actions. They can either invoke just desert as a principle that is over-and-above any consequences of holding people responsible for their actions, or they can say that they are consequentialists and add “an increase in justice” to the consequences of punishing and rewarding people for their actions; as far as I can see the two versions amount to the same thing. These compatibilists  are “brute” because they make little attempt to justify their principle of fairness or justice as a good that is separate from general human flourishing. But to insist on fairness or just deserts, irrespective of all or any consequences, is like insisting that we try to equalise the number of steps that everyone walks during their lifetime – it’s utterly pointless. Stephen Morse could be an example of a Brute Compatibilist - but perhaps he really belongs to the next group, who are ...

... the “Conservative Compatibilists”. This species hold that a belief in “just deserts” and “moral responsibility” are part and parcel of our moral practices, and cannot be dropped without doing away with moral practices altogether (P. F. Strawson might be a good example). Importantly, they believe that such moral practices can be justified on general consequentialist grounds; on the other hand, they maintain that when we partake in those practices we forego justification of individual actions on specific consequentialist grounds. Hence they believe that we really do punish someone because they have done wrong, rather than because of the consequences of punishing them, and for this reason they are often confused with Brute Compatibilists. Unsurprisingly, Conservative Compatibilists get roundly criticised for being closet retributionists. They also seem to think that all societies are like Anglo-Saxon suburbia in the 1950s (where most of them probably grew up), as a result of which they tend to consider morality solely in terms of rules and responsibilities, ignoring all the variety of moral practices across the world and through the ages. In any event, Conservative Compatibilists are certainly not to be confused with ...

... the “Naturalising Compatibilists”. This variety of compatibilist also believes that terms such as “free will”, “moral responsibility”, and “deserve” are best understood as part of our moral practices, but unlike the Conservative Compatibilists they accept that those practices are subject to change and to rational appraisal. They still have a streak of conservatism, because they accept that we start from where we are now, and insist that changes in moral practices or in the use of terms must be carefully evaluated. They see themselves as pragmatic realists, rescuing everyday notions from the grip of religion and mysticism where doing so can be justified. However, those further left see them as more interested in thinking than in doing, and as always hedging their bets. Daniel Dennett would be the prime example of a Naturalising Compatibilist (and I should add that I am one of their number as well).

Next we have a group whom I will term the “Leninists”. In substance, they barely differ from the Naturalising Compatibilists, but they place great importance (as did Marx) on the idea that mankind is subject to an overwhelming illusion which if overcome would enable us to move into a bright, gleaming future. Hence, all efforts must be directed at ending the belief in that illusion; there is much talk of a “revolution”, and of expunging the terms “free will”, “moral responsibility” and “deserve” from everyday discourse. Tom Clark is a good example of a Leninist; Bruce Waller is probably another. Leninists are primarily interested in building a movement and recruiting cadres, usually from the Naive Believers. Given their emphasis on praxis, they particularly disdain the Naturalising Compatibilists for their philosophical quibbling, and for accepting a terminology that really belongs to the True Believers. Indeed, Leninists reject the term “compatibilist” entirely, even though they might retain notions of agency, responsibility, and moral values.

A further group, who can be considered as lying off to the side of the main spectrum, are the “Non-Deontologists”, such as virtue ethicists and strict consequentialists. Their concepts of morality owe little or nothing to “rules” and “responsibilities” to which “agents” are held accountable, and hence they cannot see why everyone else gets terribly excited about free will. They are therefore mostly ignored. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy with them.

Finally, we reach the “Moral Nihilists”, who believe that determinism means that “morality goes out the window” as Jerry Coyne has memorably put it. They just don’t seem to understand that societies can have moral practices which do not depend upon rules and the type of absolute moral responsibility characterised by, say, Christianity. Some may actually be “Confused Nihilists”, in that they implicitly hold to some form of moral values, telling us what we “should” and “should not” do, despite fulminating against morality as such (Jerry Coyne himself may be an example of a Confused Nihilist). The Nihilist category also includes those who want to ditch morality, but without taking any tedious detour via a consideration of free will and determinism. What Moral Nihilists mostly have in common is that they think that our sense of right and wrong should be replaced by societal procedures designed to produce some form of optimal outcome. They also tend to believe that, in the absence of people acting on the basis of right and wrong, a society can be held together by means of some attribute that is the common property of humanity. Unfortunately, they disagree on what this is: some think it is empathy (e.g. Jerry Coyne, perhaps), some that it is the drive for self-realisation (e.g. Ayn Rand 2), others that it is the will to power or instinct for survival (e.g. Goebbels).

The major arguments that I can see at present are as follows. (i) The Leninists are concerned that the efforts of the Naturalising Compatibilists are entirely harmful to their own revolutionary attempts to rid humankind of the free will illusion, and to their need to recruit from the Naive Believers. They therefore tend to argue most with those who are closest to them, rather as the Bolsheviks did with the Mensheviks. On the other hand, Leninists see the Moral Nihilists as allies in their fight against Compatibilists of all sorts. (ii) The Naturalising Compatibilists, however, are less concerned with countering the Leninists than with preventing the Nihilists from gaining ground. They see the Nihilists as purveyors of snake oil – “efficient procedures” and “optimum outcomes” that are marketed by scientists and lawyers who behave as if they work for McKinsey’s, telling humanity that we haven’t done a particularly good job of running our operation. Naturalising Compatibilists believe that, while the Nihilists are currently only a minor irritant, they are liable to turn into a terrifying menace once they get close to gaining power: I mean, who do you think would win a face-off between Jerry Coyne, Ayn Rand, and the Third Reich?

In practice, everyone ignores the True Believers – after all, they know they are on the One True Path to Heaven and can’t be argued with. The Non-Deontologists are also mostly ignored, as their views do not conveniently fit into the logic-chopping mindset which manages to conclude that morality must be worthless or false because physicists have discovered that the universe is causally closed.


[1] This is not to imply that Christians, say, necessarily take a retributive stance on social and penal policies. After all, “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” was meant to signal that retribution for wrongs done to us should not be sought here on Earth. Many Christians see themselves as morally responsible to God, rather than to society.

[2] Strictly speaking, Ayn Rand was an ethical egoist, not a nihilist, believing that it was morally right for each person to be allowed to follow their own path to self-actualization. Or so it says on Wikipedia – and that’s as far as I’m going to soil myself. (Do Randians have “efficient procedures” for achieving an “optimum outcome”? Indeed they do – they are termed “The Market”.)

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